The former coal town leading the race for clean energy
The Port of Blyth boasts a world-class research hub for offshore renewable energy. Cambois, just a few miles north, is the landing point for a sub-sea electricity cable from Norway, and the proposed site of an electric car battery factory. The FT's Leslie Hook visits these projects as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate talks
Reported by Leslie Hook; produced, filmed and edited by James Sandy; motion graphics by Steve Bernard; additional footage from Allan McPhail and Max Willson
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Can the UK take the lead in renewable energy? One region in the northeast thinks it has the answer. I'm at the Port of Blyth in Northumberland. This used to be the heart of British coal country. But today it's home to some of the biggest and most exciting green energy projects in the UK.
Pioneering advances in wind power, a £2bn link to Norwegian renewables, and the proposed site of a gigafactory for electric car batteries, all within the space of a few miles. The government is hoping projects like these can paint the country in a green light ahead of the COP26 Climate Change Conference in November, while at the same time boosting its levelling-up agenda to bring jobs and prosperity outside London.
The offshore renewable energy catapult right at the centre of the port has come to symbolise these twin goals. Boris Johnson himself paid a visit to its wind blade testing facility in December last year. Today, it's my turn to take a look around. Hi, Tony.
Hi, Leslie. And welcome to the world's largest blade test facility.
Let's go see it.
OK. Let's go.
Opened in 2012, this giant complex has tested some of the world's longest wind turbine blades, some measuring more than 100 metres long. So Tony, tell me what's happening here in this space. What is going on here?
We call it accelerated life testing. So this blade is designed for a 25-year life, and we compress that into six months of testing. There are two types of tests we do; a static test, just to pull it, rather like you bending a ruler when you're at school and making sure that it can withstand that design strength. And the other one is a fatigue test, where you bend it as you bend a paper clip back and forwards, and eventually it would snap. This turbine, when this blade's at 12 o'clock, it's almost equivalent in height to the Eiffel Tower. Nowhere else in the world is capable of applying loads at that scale.
One rotation of these giant blades generates enough electricity to power a UK home for 24 hours. The fact they are based on a new design is also good for local jobs.
This blade in particular is destined for Dogger Bank offshore wind farm. Within probably one month of us completing the test the owners secured the major contract to supply this blade. And on the back of that they committed to building a factory at Teesside, creating 2,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Beyond testing, this government-backed centre also provides support for research and innovation. So far, it's helped over 800 companies develop new wind and marine energy technologies. And it's just part of the broader transformation under way at the Port of Blyth.
I believe in the 1960s the Port of Blyth exported 6m tonnes of coal to Europe. Things have moved on. We're ideally situated because we've got the road and rail infrastructure as well as the port facilities. It's almost like a perfect storm that the Blyth Valley is set just to move forward and flagship, hopefully, the UK in green energy.
The port still handles around 2m tonnes of cargo every year, but not coal. And today it's better known as a support base for offshore energy projects in the North Sea. I'm taking to the water to find out why. So can you tell us about all of the different facilities and services that are offered here at the port? Why has Blyth become such a centre for green energy in particular?
So a combination of things, really. We have the expertise of the port itself. We have a huge supply chain that plugs in at every possible angle, from manufacturing to fabrication to painters, welders, scaffolding companies. So when a company has a project that they're working on, they're able to get everything that they need on site.
This ready-made supply chain has already helped the port secure investment to expand their services, including training facilities for the next generation of offshore engineers. Now they're looking to expand even further, converting the site of a former coal mine to make room for low-carbon businesses.
It's the state's clean energy terminal. The name comes from the pit that was originally on the site. And the great thing about that opportunity is this shift from coal into renewables is happening in front of our eyes. Businesses will be attracted by solar power, electric plant and machinery running on site and a tie-in with this offshore renewable energy catapult to look at all sorts of technologies to help to decarbonise the nation.
Just across the river from the Bates terminal, Camois is home to another symbol of Northumberland's fossil fuel past. Built in the 1950s, Blyth Power Station burned coal for almost half a century before it was decommissioned in the '90s and eventually demolished in 2003. Largely neglected since then, the site still has an active connection to the UK's electricity grid. And new energy enterprises have started to move in.
That's just a great expanse of land which has still got the infrastructure that connects directly into the national grid. So as far as electricity production is concerned you've got a ready-made socket. Basically you just need to put the plugs in. Anywhere else, you would have to develop a new network.
The North Sea Link will go live this year, bringing in enough electricity to power nearly 1.5m UK homes. But that electricity isn't being generated in Camois. It's coming from another country entirely, more than 400 miles across the North Sea. I'm told the roof is the best place to get a sense of how that power gets here.
Welcome to the roof of the converter station. You've got a fantastic view across the port, the station, the substation. You can see it all from up here.
Amazing. So tell me about the North Sea Link. What is it, and what is it doing?
So the North Sea Link is a huge underwater electricity cable between the Port of Blyth, where we are today, and Norway. And it allows us to move renewable energy between Norway and the UK. So on a day like today, where the sun's shining and the wind's blowing, we can potentially export energy. And when we don't have a surplus of renewables in the UK, we can bring in hydro power that's produced in Norway.
The North Sea Link is the longest interconnector in the world, and it took six years and cost nearly £2bn to build. So Norway may seem like an unlikely energy partner, but given the type of renewable energy each country produce they're an ideal match.
Norway has a real abundance of natural renewable energy from hydropower. And it's a more stable renewable than some others. So that makes it a fantastic exporter of power and helps each country manage the intermittency of renewable energy.
When bad weather drives down renewable energy production the shortfall is normally filled by fossil fuel power plants. By providing an alternative source of clean electricity, the North Sea Link estimates it will save 23m tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030. But once the cable gets here it isn't as simple as plugging it into the mains. The site at Camois covers half a million square feet with state-of-the-art technology. It's all here to convert one form of electricity, direct current, to another, alternating current. Hi Nigel.
Hi, Leslie. Welcome to Blyth Converter Site. Let's go and have a look.
This is the Valve Hall. There's four of these on site. And this is where the magic happens. This is where electricity from Norway is converted to a form which we can use in our houses in the UK.
So what are the steps in this conversion process?
Inside of here, we have thousands of small valves, and they switch on and off 50 times a second. And that recreates the waveform and converts it to alternating current.
The Valve Hall is just a small part of the operation here. But despite the acres of pristine machinery it will take only a few onsite workers to keep this facility ticking over. So while the converter station may have replaced coal for the region's energy needs it has not been able to replace the thousands of jobs the coal industry brought to this area.
Since the pits closed, these areas, the coalfield communities have suffered greatly because of unemployment. The question is, can green jobs ever replace what we had with the coal industry in areas like this? And the answer is that it can. It'll take an awful lot of doing, an awful lot of investment from the government. But why should areas like this not receive the required investment? It's no good having this green industrial revolution here if it doesn't mean that we're going to change the lives of the people in these communities.
The land next door to the North Sea Link converter station has been bought by Britishvolt, a start-up looking to build and operate a gigafactory in what used to be Blyth Power Station's coal yard. The company hasn't yet secured funding for the plant but they have big ideas for the site and for the local community.
The factory will be here in front of us, covering all of that 3.4m sq ft with mezzanines when it's built. It will be the fourth largest building in Britain.
If it comes to fruition, what would this project mean for this local area in terms of jobs and the local economy?
Well, the factory is in three phases, and we think 1,000 jobs per phase directly with Britishvolt employment. But we want to do a lot more than that. We would hope by the time we're finished here we don't only have the factory with 3,000 jobs, but we think another 5,000 potentially in supply chain as well. That's the ambition.
Once built, the factory would have plenty of local renewable energy to draw on in its effort to make zero carbon batteries. But Britishvolt is still a long way from achieving that goal. How much more money will you need to build a project at this scale?
It's an expensive project. We're looking at $2.6bn as an order of cost. We've been through already our initial funding rounds, our A round, our B series, E is open at the moment. We've also made an application to the UK government for the automotive transformation fund. We're hoping that will come through soon. That's what that fund was set up to do. That's what we've applied for. Yeah. That's what we need.
There are still big hurdles to clear before this factory can become a reality. But this site and the wider region around it prove there's an appetite for a British green industrial revolution. Whether that happens, and whether areas like Blyth and Camois benefit will depend on how the government balances its push for clean energy with its levelling-up agenda.